Who was the best composer ever?

By June 12, 2014ABC, History, Music

I’ve written about ABC Classic FM’s Countdowns before (here, for example), and it has just concluded a Countdown in which listeners nominated music that came from’Baroque and Before’ — which is essentially all music prior to 1750, when Johann Sebastian Bach died. What exactly is ‘Baroque’, and when did the period begin?

Conventionally, the period is 1600 to 1750, and its art is characterised by ornament, expressiveness and sometimes exaggeration. The use of ‘Baroque’ to define the period  comes later, a linguistic fiat of art historians, notably the Swiss master, Jacob Burckhardt, whose work I encountered as a history undergraduate. The musicians of the era didn’t use the term themselves, and neither did the artists. It is a supremely important period in music, for just about everything we take for granted today was first invented or explored there.

When I heard what the new countdown would be about I wondered why the ABC hadn’t just settled for the ‘Best of Bach’ or something like that. After all, he is arguably the greatest composer of all time, and his works run to nearly 1100, the St Matthew Passion, which runs for three hours, being only one of them. His cantatas, about which I have written before, number more than 200, and there is not one that does not have magic moments.

But that would be a bit unfair. Georg Phillip Telemann, whose music I also greatly admire, wrote perhaps three times as much as Bach, and some of his music is no less memorable. Then there is Handel, the German who is arguably the best British composer. And then there is Antonio Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons was my introduction to the baroque period, in a magnificent LP production by Phillips featuring I Musici which I bought in 1956, I think.

I don’t go in for these competitions, but I certainly enjoy listening to the outcome. As usual, the actual Countdown occupied the June long weekend, and for us the Sunday was uniformly wet and cold, so we stayed the whole day in front of the fire and listened happily. I would have placed the Matthew Passion number one, because I think it is Bach’s greatest work, and in my judgment one of the great achievements of Western civilisation.

But you’ve got to be in it to win it, and the winnah — was Handel’s Messiah, with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons coming in second. The Matthew Passion made it to number five, which is a creditable showing in what is best seen as a popularity poll. And I would have to say that the top 100 is a pretty sensible list, all things considered.

There were some odd things in the way the list was created. Bach wrote partitas (collections of pieces to display technique or possibilities) for keyboard and for solo violin. The keyboard partitas, which were my first real introduction to his music, because I tried to learn to play them, were rolled into one work, while the violin partitas were listed separately. The two books of ‘the well-tempered clavier’ (all today’s pianos are constructed according to Bach’s determination of the best compromise in note relationships) became one work. Quite a few items were memorable songs from this or that opera or cantata, like ‘Where ere you walk’, and ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, but such a nomination brought the whole work in. Wotthehell, archie — you have to do something to produce some order into this gigantic realm of music.

Handel got in ahead of his contemporary Bach twice in the top five with his Water Music at number four, while number three was Allegri’s Miserere, a choral item sung in the Sistine Chapel, which Mozart transcribed from memory when he discovered that he could not see the score, because that was forbidden to someone outside the Vatican.

But over at least the first 200 pieces voted for, Bach was the clear winner — 33 in the first hundred and 20 in the second. Handel came second, with 15 in the first hundred and six in the second, while Vivaldi  had the same score as Handel but in reverse, his six coming in the first hundred and 15 in the second. My liking for Telemann was not shared by the large jury, for he attracted only two places in the first hundred and six in the second.

I greatly enjoyed the commentaries from musicians, who sat in with the presenters. And two performances stood out for me, Fiona Campbell’s singing ‘Dido’s Lament’, by Henry Purcell, and Barbara Jane Gilbey’s violin pyrotechnics in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There was not to be a concert of the top five, as there often has been, and you can see that it would be difficult to bring off without a lot of expense.

But the ABC has already brought out an eight-CD set of the best of the Countdown — indeed, it was apparently available the morning after. Now that’s slick commercial work!

Oh, and who was the best composer ever? Well, I think it has to be J. S. Bach, though I think I would need another essay in which to defend my judgment.


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • margaret says:

    As a teenager I was captured early by the Beatles – in fact I still have the ticket to their concert (?!! – the word is not really appropriate) at the Sydney stadium that my grandmother, bless her, queued for for me and my friends, fifty years ago.
    Not learning a musical instrument is a regret for me. I had to learn the recorder at teacher’s college to have a modicum of musical expertise to deliver in a classroom (but I preferred my voice for that).
    This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate classical music but not in any sense in a knowledgeable way. I love the lightness of being that I feel when listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I especially love the winter movement. In fact, I am going to listen to it this morning!

    • margaret says:

      Saw this performed last night by the Strings of the Spring Festival in local basketball stadium disguised by black velvet drapes. It was electrifying. Brendan Joyce was the solo violinist.
      Max Richter – Four Seasons Re-Composed.
      “Max Richter is a minimalist composer, who counts punk rock and electronic music amongst his influences. He has taken one of the most loved pieces in the orchestral repetoire (in fact we have almost loved it to death) – Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from 1720 – and ‘recomposed it’. He says that 75% of the notes are his, but – and this is its success – 100% of the spirit is Vivaldi’s.”

  • DaveW says:

    Thanks for this. It prevented me from loosing another morning to mindless work at the computer with coffee and tea the only anodynes. Now Cantata #78, BWV 78, “Jesu, Der Du Meine Seele”, by far my favourite Bach Cantata, is playing in the background – and sourced from some ancient ABC compendium no less. I would list JS Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel as the tops for me, although I’ve also developed a fondness for earlier music (madrigals) and even tolerate a Mozart horn concerto or two.

  • Gus says:

    I find Bach too chromatic. Beethoven, on his deathbed, under torture inflicted upon him by idiot journalists of the day, confessed to his opinion that the best composer was Handel. Now, Handel was very, very good, but he did produce boring music too. Beethoven considered Bach to be an unsurpassed master of harmony.

    Of course, one cannot account for taste, and one’s taste will vary with age too. These days I find great pleasure in listening to … Domenico Scarlatti. A friend pointed out to me, in the past, how much more modern and innovative Scarlatti was compared to Bach and even to Handel. Remember that all three were born the same year, 1685! And then, in my old age, I discovered the romantics too: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Rossini, Chopin, Wagner even! And then we have Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich: some of their music is truly memorable too. I never got to like Bartok or Stravinsky, perhaps I should listen more.

    There was another Spanish composer, similar in style to Scarlatti, though younger, Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783), his real name Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler Ramos. Supposedly a student of Scarlatti at some stage. Wonderful and little known music too.

  • Michael 2 says:

    One of my favorites is Ralph Vaughan Williams. Naturally I like the favorites you have identified.

    But the one that sends my mind aloft is Ralph Vaughan Williams, particularly his choral works. “This is the Truth Sent from Above” from Fantasia on Christmas Carols gives me the shivers! If that’s what angels sound like, sign me up!

    Gustav Holst is another of my favorites. First and Second suites Op 28. My version is played by Frederick Fennell, the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, and I cannot imagine anyone doing it better with more energy or virtuosity.

    When I want complex music a good choice is Brahms Symphony #4 — complex, simple, happy, sad, serious, light; all at the same time.

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